Twenty-odd years ago, the England selectors finally ran out of reasons not to pick the marvellous Bath centre John Palmer and handed him a plane ticket to South Africa, where he promptly ran smack-bang into Danie Gerber, one of the two or three finest midfielders in the post-war history of the sport. "Typical," Palmer said on returning to the West Country and buying himself a consolatory pint at his local. "You wait for ever and a day to get a chance, and then find yourself up against that bugger, gorging himself on 80 per cent possession." England lost, by the way. Heavily.
England should not lose to Tonga on Friday night, least of all heavily, but poor Lewis Moody may just end up wondering, in Palmeresque fashion, whether there is any justice in the world. Denied even a single second's activity in last season's Six Nations Championship because of a shoulder condition and forced out of last month's warm-up game with France with a small but costly tear in his calf muscle, he is due to start an international match for the first time since Argentina put the cat among the pigeons by winning at Twickenham 10 months ago. And who can he expect to encounter? Why, the best back-row unit of the tournament to date. Typical indeed.
Nili Latu, Finau Maka, Hale T-Pole, Viliami Vaki... these unrated Pacific islanders have caused all manner of trouble over the last two and a half weeks, and have no intention of behaving themselves at this delicate point in proceedings. "Latu is a clever player and Maka has become a talisman for the Tongan team," Moody acknowledged yesterday. "I hope people aren't running away with the idea that this will be a walkover. If we don't impose our physiciality on these opponents and put our mark on the game, we'll find it bloody tough going."
Should Moody struggle to catch the pace of Friday's contest and allow the Tongans to unsettle England in the way they disturbed Springbok equilibrium in Lens last weekend, he could easily find himself surplus to requirements for the remainder of the competition – always assuming there is a remainder, given the must-win nature of this final pool fixture. On the other hand, a vintage outpouring of high-energy tackling and enthusiastic chasing might push him to the head of the queue for the No 7 shirt, in front of the two Wasps flankers, Tom Rees and Joe Worsley. He is not in a chicken-counting frame of mind, for it is a long time since he started a match of such importance, but he is confident nonetheless.
"I think we're all confident, because we've been lifted by the victory over Samoa," he said. "The 60-point win over Wales in the first of the warm-up matches probably set us up for a fall, and we've had a rough old time of it since. Now, we're much calmer as a group.
The self-belief drains away when performances are poor and results go against you, but a win like the one in Nantes, in which you start to play as you always intended to play and score four tries in the process, tends to get rid of the angst, the nerves, the tension.
"Me? I'm just happy to be involved. I'm always being asked whether I prefer the open-side role to the blind-side one, and I always answer the same way. I see myself as an open-side flanker, but I have no preference. There's always someone after your place, wherever you happen to be operating, so you'll get nowhere by picking and choosing."Reuse content